As we strolled about the museum this past weekend, pausing at length before a pieced-together painting of an unusually happy family, the Midstory team noticed a small, slightly disheveled older gentleman in a black velvet ensemble with a white lace collar—at first glance, either a period actor or an urban hipster. Upon further investigation—and Googling on our iPhones to compare his appearance to his self-portrait depicted on Wikipedia—we realized it was none other than Frans Hals himself, unable to resist the temptation of seeing his work on exhibition in this beautiful city. In this rare, chance meeting with the 436-year-old Dutch painter, Midstory was able to chat with him about the most recent exhibition of his work.
Midstorian: Hallo, Frans. We know you were trying to stay low-profile, so we appreciate your willingness to break your silence after all these years.
Frans Hals: No problem. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to speak on my own work and St. Bavo’s has been a little lonely for the past 350 years or so, so I’m glad to be here.
MS: Before we discuss the exhibit, why don’t you start off by telling me about your life?
FH: I was born in the Spanish Netherlands, now Belgium, in the 1580s. When I was a small boy, the Spanish occupied the territory, so my family and I fled to the Dutch Republic. I’ve lived in Haarlem ever since.
MS: Weren’t you pretty young when you started your career?
FH: I learned “how to art” from a famous mentor when I was a teenager. When I was 27, I became a member of Haarlem’s Guild of Saint Luke—basically a union for artists. I also spent time as an art restorer for the city council because I was trying to make some money, but it ended up launching my career.
MS: How so?
FH: Most of the paintings I restored came from St. John’s Church, a Catholic Church. But as Catholic art was banned in Haarlem, portraits or still lifes were my only viable options— otherwise city councilmen wouldn’t approve any of the works I restored with religious themes.
MS: What about the opinions of councilwomen?
FH: Err…This is the 1620s.
MS: Oh… Right. Do you think that realization about genres of art made you “famous?”
FH: It’s hard to say. I realized there was no market for religious art, since the remaining pieces from my early restoration days were literally banned from the city after they were sold to a private buyer. That may be why I chose portraiture as my area of expertise. My big break came when I did a life-sized group portrait in 1616 called “The Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia Company.” But, I’ve always enjoyed observing and staging the dramas of everyday life; I was constantly honing my method to show that in my craft.
MS: Well, painting big groups is difficult, but the exhibit’s theme of “family” perhaps even more so. What is your definition of family?
FH: I can describe it with the work I’ve done in the context of the Dutch Golden Age, but its definition shifts across cultures and evolves under broad conditions.
MS: For us Americans living in the 21st century, can you describe a typical Dutch Golden Age family?
FH: Generally nuclear. The more boys the better. The home was supposed to be a safe-haven from immorality of the outside world, with women unequivocally taking on domestic roles to ensure that. The ideal household also reflected the stability and prosperity of the government, which thrived during the Golden Age. That’s what a lot of my portraits convey.
MS: Let’s talk about your family. Got any kids?
FH: 10 total—8 sons, 2 daughters. One died shortly after my first wife did. When I remarried, my second wife and I had eight. We lost a few more children between my first and second wife, as was common in my days. I’d say life has many ups and downs even in a Golden Age Dutch home.
MS: Sounds like a familiar story. Do you think modern families can relate to your portraits?
FH: Absolutely. The dynamic relationships of figures I compose in my paintings are, I’d like to believe, universal. While the context might be drastically different in 2018, the word “home” evokes the same often inarticulable, sentimental feelings for a lot of people.
MS: Now let’s take a look at one of your pieces currently displayed at “A Family Reunion” exhibit at the TMA, “The Van Campen Family in a Landscape.” It pretty much catalyzes the exhibition, and the theme is generated around this painting that you did in the early 1620s.
FH: Right, this one is particularly dear to me. The Museum of Art here managed to pull together three fragments of my original, approximately 10-foot-long painting. Though I am often commissioned to do single portraits, I very rarely paint family portraits. Most of my large group paintings were commissioned by Haarlem civic guard companies. But this, being among the earliest of my handful of family portraits, is very special. I like depicting real people with real relationships, and working with family presents an opportunity—even a challenge—to do that.
MS: Our readers may not know much about this Dutch family. Would you share the context in which you were commissioned?
FH: The Van Campens were a well-to-do family. The couple had approached me for the occasion of their 20th wedding anniversary. It’s before the time of photography, so paintings were the only way to capture visual proof of life’s important moments.
MS: What did they request, or what were some of the features they opted to include?
FH: The typical. Of course one always wants to look their best, choosing the right scenes and the best gestures to show their familial virtues. And as these paintings are held onto for perpetuity, you want to leave a good lasting impression. The figures visually depict such long standing values as loyalty and faithfulness. Whether they are standing, or holding hands, or conversing, or accompanied by family animals—here a goat—these are all clues and symbols to the Van Campen family status.
MS: How do you approach the challenges of painting this family?
FH: As the scene of a celebratory event, it was important that the picture wasn’t stiff, but had a relaxed tone. I generally start directly with oil on the canvas, with little prep, composing as I go. Let’s not forget that it wasn’t easy with a family of 13 children—plus their goat—so I framed Gijsbert Claesz van Campen and his family around the distant landscape, six children on the left and the seven others on the right. Working rapidly was my best bet for portraits (artists have to make a living, too).
MS: You said 13 children?
FH: Technically the little girl at the front makes for 14 total children—the one there leaning into her father’s chair next to a bucket of apples spilling out of it. She was born after I finished the painting. They actually commissioned another painter, Salomon de Bray, to do it in 1628. Why I wasn’t asked to do it? Who knows. I’m not bitter or anything, but that’s why she looks significantly worse—I mean, different—from the rest of the family. I never painted her. See there, de Bray signed his name on the infant’s left shoe.
MS: Glad to see grudges don’t last over a few hundred years. So the 14th child was added some years later by someone else; does that mean that the portrait also echoes real-life family dynamics, adding and changing with time?
FH: Quite. These portraits are a bit Dorian Gray-esque, in some ways morphing and changing with the state of the family. This was a common practice. Of course families change—they are supposed to. My painting style always infuses some of that dynamism into the static image, otherwise how do you capture the life and the joy? Over the course of my career, I made it a point to imbue spontaneity through rapid and loose brushstrokes, and even my choice of color and paints are all purposeful— all to better convey the intangible things that, at the end of the day, escape the canvas.
MS: Without ruining it for any Toledoan who hasn’t made it to the exhibit, would you give us an idea of what the viewers can expect to see when they venture into the Toledo Museum of Art?
FH: They’re going to see something that, frankly, has not been seen since the 18th century. I only wish that time had been kinder to the work and that the remaining corner of the painting, where two remaining children of the van Campen family sat, were salvaged. Nevertheless, it’s something of a monumental moment to join in on this family reunion across the Atlantic Ocean, in Toledo of all places! After all this time, seeing these portraits in front of a totally new audience, across countries and across cultures, hits me in a emotional spot. I hope it returns all of us to the timeless theme of unity and of family, which may be more relevant in your generation than it was in mine.
The exhibition is open until Jan. 6, 2019 at the Toledo Museum of Art. For more information, visit https://www.toledomuseum.org/art/exhibitions/frans-hals-portraits-family-reunion.